Afghan retreat: US formally withdrawing from its longest war
Kabul, Afghanistan: The United States formally begins withdrawing its last troops from Afghanistan Saturday, bringing its longest war nearer to an end but also heralding an uncertain future for a country in the tightening grip of an emboldened Taliban.
US officials on the ground say the withdrawal is already a work in progress -- and May 1 is just a continuation -- but Washington has made an issue of the date because it is a deadline agreed with the Taliban in 2020 to complete the pullout.
The skies above Kabul and nearby Bagram airbase have been buzzing with more US helicopter activity than usual as the pullout gears up, following the start Thursday of a concurrent NATO withdrawal.
Afghan security forces were on high alert for any possible Taliban attacks on retreating American troops.
The US military said an airfield in the southern province of Kandahar where it has a base "received ineffective indirect fire" on Saturday afternoon that caused no damages.
"The Americans will formally begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan starting May 1 and the Taliban might increase the violence," Acting Interior Minister Hayatullah Hayat told top police commanders, according to an audio clip given to reporters.
Afghan Acting Defence Minister Zia Yasin said US and allied troops will be leaving their bases and will gather at Bagram, the biggest American base in Afghanistan.
From there "they will go to their respective countries", Yasin told reporters.
The prospect of an end to the US presence after 20 years comes despite fighting raging across the countryside in the absence of a peace deal.
A stark reminder of what remains came late Friday with a car bomb in Pul-e-Alam, south of the capital, killing at least 24 people and wounding 110 more.
Taliban awaiting orders
US President Joe Biden is determined to end what he called "the forever war", announcing last month that the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 American forces would be complete by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
"A horrific attack 20 years ago... cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021," he said.
The Taliban said the US troop withdrawal was to be completed by May 1 as agreed in last year's accord with Washington and warned it was a "clear violation" that the troops were not fully out.
"This in principle opens the way for our mujahideen to take appropriate action against the invading forces," Mohammad Naeem, a Taliban spokesman told AFP, adding that the group was awaiting orders from its leaders.
Since the US withdrawal deal was struck the Taliban have not directly engaged foreign troops, but have mercilessly attacked government forces in the countryside and waged a terror campaign in urban areas.
The exit of US forces has only exacerbated the fear felt by ordinary Afghans.
"Everyone is scared that we might go back to the dark days of the Taliban era," said Mena Nowrozi, who works at a private radio station in Kabul.
"The Taliban are still the same; they have not changed. The US should have extended their presence by at least a year or two," she told AFP.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insists that government forces -- which for months have carried out most of the ground fighting against the Taliban -- are "fully capable" of keeping the insurgents at bay.
He said the pullout also means the Taliban have no reason to fight.
"Who are you killing? What are you destroying? Your pretext of fighting the foreigners is now over," Ghani said in a speech this week.
Still, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has not ruled out total chaos.
"On the worst-case analysis, you have a potential collapse of the government, a potential collapse of the military," he said earlier this week.
"You have a civil war and all the humanitarian catastrophe that goes with it."
Police officer Abdul Malik from the former insurgent bastion of Kandahar said they were prepared.
"We have to take care of our homeland... We will do our best to defend our soil," he told AFP.
The US-led military onslaught in Afghanistan began in October 2001 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
Two decades later, and after the death of almost 2,400 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans, Biden says the final withdrawal was justified as US forces had now made sure the country cannot again become a base for foreign jihadists to plot against the West.
Concerns are high that the Taliban might yet strike at retreating US forces, and in the southern province of Kandahar -- where the foes used to clash regularly -- security sources say several areas are laden with explosives planted by the insurgents.
"If the Taliban attack retreating US or allied forces, it would be to bloody the nose of a defeated enemy and to humiliate it further," said Afghanistan specialist Nishank Motwani.
Afghanistan's fate in the balance:
The US military's final troop pullout from Afghanistan which starts Saturday will bring relief to those who want the war to end, but fear to many Afghans who live on the frontlines.
The pullout, announced last month by President Joe Biden, will be matched by a withdrawal of remaining NATO forces and scheduled to end before the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
The latest development in the nearly two-decade conflict has raised concerns over what lies ahead for the violence-wracked country.
Will the US pullout end the war?
That is unlikely.
In the absence of a definitive ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan government, most analysts, politicians and ordinary citizens believe the country will plunge into civil war.
"The war will intensify, turn uglier, and drag on until the Taliban capture power in whatever ruined state is left of Kabul and other provincial capitals and districts," said Nishank Motwani, an independent specialist on Afghanistan.
America's top soldier, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, said this week that a range of outcomes were expected once the troops leave, including a "potential collapse of the government" and "a potential collapse of the military".
"What is clear is that the parties (the Taliban and Afghan government) now have very little to move forward towards a serious compromise in the negotiations, and peace efforts are effectively stalled," said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Can Afghan forces offer security without the US?
That remains to be seen.
Afghan officials claim the 350,000 soldiers and police officers that make up national security forces carry out 98 percent of all operations against the insurgents.
But the US air force is a key factor in the ongoing fight, offering regular and vital support to ground operations -- particularly when regular troops risk being overwhelmed.
Currently under the command of President Ashraf Ghani, their will to fight could be tested without US support, say analysts.
"They can survive as long as they are paid," said Afghan political analyst Fawad Kochi.
The Taliban control huge swathes of the countryside -- and strategic arteries linking major urban centres -- but have not taken any major cities or towns, or at least not for long.
But they still have urbanites in the grip of fear, with almost daily car bombings or targetted assassinations against prominent citizens.
"The Taliban have grown incredibly effective in demonstrating the gaps in the Afghan government's capacity," said Watkins.
Is there a road to democracy?
If so, it has many forks.
President Ghani has prepared a three-stage plan which includes reaching a political settlement and ceasefire with the Taliban ahead of a presidential election to form a "government of peace".
The US favours an interim government involving the Taliban, and for the country to chart its future with consensus between all parties.
While loose on specifics, the Taliban insist Afghanistan should return to being an emirate, run along strict Islamic lines by a council of religious elders.
Afghanistan has seen four presidential elections since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 and millions of Afghans have embraced a plural, democratic system.
Now the stage is set for the insurgents to return, analysts fears the democratic gains of the past two decades could be lost.
"The consequences of Biden's decision to exit from Afghanistan guarantees a Taliban return, but not before sparking state collapse, a multi-dimensional civil war, and burning down of democracy," said analyst Motwani.
What are the economic prospects?
Afghanistan is one of the world's most impoverished countries, deeply indebted and utterly reliant on foreign aid.
While the nation boasts lucrative mineral reserves that neighbours including China and India are keen to exploit, the security situation has never been stable enough for revenues to boost state coffers.
In November, global donors pledged to offer aid to Afghanistan up to 2024, but concerns are that with the imminent exit of foreign forces the donors might not follow up on their commitments.
And what about Afghanistan's women?
There is genuine fear that all their gains may be lost.
The Taliban banned girls from work and stoned to death women accused of crimes such as adultery until being deposed in 2001, but Afghan women have become prominent politicians, activists, journalists and judges in the interim.
The Taliban insist they will respect women's rights in accordance with Islamic law, but activists note the multiple interpretations of that across the Muslim world.
"When they say they will protect women's rights, it is according to their interpretation of sharia," said Mariam Safi, a senior Afghan researcher.
"But that interpretation of women's rights will not be different than our previous experience of the Taliban regime."
Optimism, fear in former Taliban bastion:
As the US military began formally withdrawing from Afghanistan Saturday, some residents in Kandahar -- the former bastion of the Taliban -- were optimistic the exit will bring peace to the violence-wracked country.
"The fighting will then be between two Muslim brothers (Afghan government forces and the Taliban) and the hope is that the two will reconcile and make peace," said Pacha Khan, a farmer from the southern Afghan province that was once a flashpoint of fighting.
US President Joe Biden had announced in April that the remaining 2,500 American troops will formally begin leaving Afghanistan from May 1 and complete their withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, bringing an end to America's longest war.
In reality, the withdrawal has been a work in progress for months.
Fighting between US forces and the Taliban has stopped since a landmark deal between Biden's predecessor Donald Trump and the insurgents last year.
But battles rage daily between Afghan government forces and the militants across Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban who ruled the country in the 1990s with a harsh version of Islamic sharia law.
Few shops were open in Kandahar city's main market on Saturday, while police set up checkpoints on roads leading to the airport -- almost deserted as most American troops have left.
In Kandahar's Bush Bazar -- named for former US president who started the war in 2001 -- shopkeepers sorted through used goods for sale from the former American base.
"A few days ago there was a big blast outside the airport. We later came to know the Americans had destroyed equipment," said Esa Mohammad, the bazar's secretary.
"Now we get scrap from there to be sold in the market."
Many ordinary Afghans remain bitter at US forces for the hardships over the years.
Mohammad, a farmer who gave only one name, said the past 20 years had been worse than the 1980s, when Afghanistan was occupied by Soviet troops.
"The Russians did not inflict the kind of casualties the Americans did," said the father of eight.
"The Americans killed my brother 10 years ago when they bombarded our village. These infidels have inflicted heavy losses and I'm happy they are leaving."
His views were echoed by Agha Shireen, a trishaw driver from Arghandab on the outskirts of Kandahar city.
"They have killed a lot of our people and brought only misery," he said.
"If the Taliban return, the situation might turn better."
'An unending war'
But Pari, 31, who works in Panjwai district believes that for lasting peace, the Taliban have to declare a ceasefire.
"I'm happy the US is withdrawing... but if the situation deteriorates in the absence of a ceasefire I might be unable to work," she said.
One of the biggest achievements of the last two decades has been a boost to women's rights, with Afghan women working in almost every sector.
Women were banned from work and girls from attending school during the Taliban regime.
Even as the mood appeared optimistic in Kandahar, fear lurked in other cities over the US pullout.
"I feel the Taliban will again be strong after the withdrawal of foreign troops," said Ghulam Nabi, a shopkeeper from the western city of Herat.
"I feel scared of another civil war and that we will be forced to leave the country."
The departure of US forces will weaken the morale of Afghans, said Adila Kabiri, a professor at Herat University.
Her views were shared by Abdul Ahad Safi, a resident from the restive eastern city of Jalalabad, which has seen deadly attacks by Taliban and jihadists from the Islamic State.
"They should not go until we have peace," he said.
"We are worried about the bloodshed and an unending war in our country."